He’d been shocked, disappointed, and relieved all at once. Valerie and he had been dating throughout college and during the year after when he’d been working to complete an MBA. Some would have said the signs had been there all along. If he had to be honest with himself, he’d occasionally sensed that something was off in their relationship. That Valerie had only been interested in the de Salvo money, but he hadn’t wanted to believe that.
Maybe he should have listened to what his gut had been telling him.
“Don’t think about it, bro,” said Jase Hart, his best friend and soon-to-be-brother-in-law. He sidled up to Tommy as he stood by the makeshift altar that had been set up for his sister Nickie’s wedding instead of his own.
“Was it that obvious?” he asked and faced his friend.
Jase was wearing his dress blue uniform and two weeks of Jersey Shore sun had helped eliminate some of the hospital pallor. He’d been seriously wounded three months earlier, along with several members of his unit.
“She was never the right woman for you,” Jase said and reached up to smooth the tuxedo over Tommy’s shoulders.
“You say that now – ”
“Because if I’d said it before you’d have gotten pissed off at me. You know how stubborn you can be.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he admitted. He was stubborn, determined, and loyal which only made Valerie’s betrayal all that much harder to handle.
“When you meet the right woman, you’ll know it,” Jase said with certainty. His injuries hadn’t dimmed his friend’s resolve. If anything, he’d become more determined. As soon as Jase had gotten out of the Intensive Care Unit, he’d immediately asked Tommy and Nickie’s über Old School Italian father for permission to marry his daughter. Without missing a beat, he had then proposed to Tommy’s older sister. In the two short months since Nickie had accepted, the de Salvo and Hart families had planned the mother of all military weddings to occur during Jase’s convalescent leave.
He glanced at his friend and there was nothing but determination on his features. “So when did you know you were in love with Nickie?”
Jase laughed and shook his head. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, bro.”
“Seriously, Jase. I want to know.” I need to know, he thought, not that he could ever trust another woman again.
“When she turned sixteen and sprouted boobs,” Jase said with a quick chuckle and a boyish grin.
He could only smile at his best friend since his humor was so infectious. “If you weren’t injured, I’d beat the crap out of you. I thought you appreciated more than just my sister’s boobs.”
Jase playfully nudged him. “Of course, I do, Tommy. She’s got brains, beauty and lots more, but it was her boobs that got my attention. Shit, you know how we were at fourteen. All raging hormones.”
“Good thing you’re finally doing the right thing,” he said, although he was still a little uneasy about the speed at which things were happening. It had only been a year earlier that Nickie and Jase had finally gotten around to admitting their true feelings.
Jase had deployed shortly thereafter and now here they were, ready to commit to each other. Ready to become man and wife for life.
“Are you sure about this?” he asked again, worried that his friend’s recent near death experience was somehow clouding his judgment. Jase might be his best friend, but Nickie was his sister and he had to make sure she wouldn’t be hurt.
His friend’s entire attitude became dead serious. “Do you remember what you told me on graduation day when I was still hesitating about Nickie? You said ‘Go big or go home.’ I went big and Nickie is home, Tommy. I have no doubt about that.”
He’d had few doubts about Valerie as well and look how that had ended. The last thing he wanted for two of the most important people in his life was for things to go south only . . .
The chamber music quartet’s silence sent a signal to all gathered there and in seconds, the guests quickly hurried to take seats for the start of the ceremony.
He couldn’t linger any longer. “I’ll be back,” he said and rushed off to take his spot in the wedding procession.
* * *
Jasmine Reyes was late.
First the train from New York City had been delayed by switch problems. Then there had been no taxis when she had reached the station. After pacing back and forth in front of the tracks for fifteen minutes, a cab had lazily rolled to a stop in front of her. Now, after another twenty minutes of stop and go beach traffic, she was finally at Second Lieutenant Jason Hart’s wedding.
She’d barely had time to admire the gorgeous home when a member of the wait staff hurried her across a lawn where tables were set for the reception and down a short boardwalk to the beach.
Neat rows of chairs ran across the sand on either side of a bright white runner strewn with multi-colored flower petals. Off to one side of the chairs, a chamber music quartet was just beginning to play some kind of march. The guests were all seated and craning their necks in her direction as she stood at the base of the boardwalk.
Shit, she thought as she realized she was in the way of the bridal procession getting ready to exit the home and head toward the altar set up at the far end of the beach. Not to mention that with all attention turned toward her, any hope of making an inconspicuous entry was gone.
As she hurried toward the chairs, Jase noticed her arrival, dipped his head in greeting, and smiled. He looked so much better than he had a month earlier when they both had finally been shipped stateside for their final weeks of recovery and convalescent leave.
She smiled back hesitantly and took a seat at the edge of the crowd, not sure if she should have come. The spot on the end of the row would let her make a quick exit just in case things got a little too hard to handle.
She wasn’t quite ready to be out and about like Jase. It had taken every fiber of courage in her body to put on this dress and leave her family’s small two floor walk-up in Spanish Harlem. But she had formed a special bond with the lieutenant and his men during their recent assignment and a night from hell they all wanted to forget.
Unfortunately, she had the scars on her body and in her head to remind her each and every day of that night.
The murmur that swept over the crowd dragged her attention from Jase and those memories to the first couple in the bridal procession.
She sucked in a breath at the sight of the man, tall, dark, and handsome in a designer tuxedo, who helped the maid of honor down the boardwalk stairs.
The bride’s brother and Jase’s best friend, she thought. She recognized him from the assorted pictures the lieutenant had always kept in plain sight in his quarters. There had been many moments during quieter times that the lieutenant had told her stories about growing up with Tommy and Nickie. So many stories that she almost felt like she knew Tommy, not that they’d ever met.
She’d always thought he was attractive, but the pictures hadn’t done justice to how good-looking he really was or how he carried himself with a cocksure air that just screamed sexy. Jase had recounted more than one tale of Tommy confidently leading them into one adventure or another. Know she understood how that was possible.
As he and the maid of honor reached the altar where the groom waited, he smiled at the woman. In her mind, she pictured that assured smile directed toward her and a curl of desire ignited within Jasmine.
It surprised her, that abrupt awakening of need. She hadn’t thought it possible any more since she’d felt so dead inside during the many months she’d spent in the hospital. But there it was, warming her center.
As he took a spot beside the groom and looked out toward the guests, his gaze settled on her. Dark eyes glittered with life and his lips curved up in that sexy smile again, this time for her.
Damn, but he was handsome, and as she imagined being up close and personal with him, her nipples tightened and that unexpected zing of need became a steady pulse of desire between her legs. She shifted uncomfortably, battling that awakening since it was the worst possible time for her long lost sexuality to come alive.
She wasn’t ready for anything and wasn’t sure if she ever would be. Plus, that very sexy man was like a brother to the lieutenant. The last thing she wanted was to cause a problem for the man who had become a confidant and supporter during the many long months they’d worked together and healed together.
A moment later, the next couple in the procession emerged from the house and slowly paraded down the lawn and boardwalk to the altar. The groomsman was Jase’s second-in-command, Trevor Mason, looking healthy and handsome in his dress uniform.
As she glanced back toward the house, she realized there were another five military men as part of the bridal party. She didn’t recognize a number of them and assumed they were the lieutenant’s friends from his days in the ROTC program. Besides Trevor, however, there was one other man from their unit. He’d been injured also and like Jase and Trevor, was on leave so he could heal.
Only some wounds never healed, she thought as she gingerly rubbed her shoulder. Sitting on the train so long had started an ache where shrapnel had torn into her shoulder. She kept her massage light since the area was still tender to the touch from the second degree burns she’d also suffered during the dogfight.
She should never have come, she thought, dreading the moment when the men from her unit would come over and ask her how she was. Ask her when she was coming back.
Only she wasn’t returning to Afghanistan. She was done with it all.
It was time to put this part of her life behind her by finishing out her last few months on shore duty at a local base. Once she was done, she could tackle the assorted tests that would let her work as a nurse at one of the area hospitals.
Even though she’d done her time and paid a heavy price for her service, she still felt guilty at leaving her men just when she’d earned their respect and become “Doc” to them. It wasn’t a title easily earned and she understood the faith they’d put in her to take care of them. But she had risked her life for them and now it was time to get on with her own life.
Deciding that it was best to avoid the men from her unit, she stood and was about to leave when the bride came out of the back of her house, her hand tucked around her father’s arm.
Like the best man, she was more beautiful in real life than in the photos she had seen, but it was the sheer joy on the bride’s features that froze Jasmine in place. She’d never seen such limitless love on anyone’s face. As she turned to glance back in the groom’s direction, it was obvious he felt the same way. That he wanted everyone there to witness their love and celebrate it.
Because of that she held her ground and stayed for the ceremony. It seemed to fly by, driven by the impatient happiness of the couple as they answered the priest’s inquiries, and exchanged rings and vows.
Finally the priest’s voice boomed over the couple and the guests. “By the power vested in me by the State of New Jersey, I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your bride.”
As the newlyweds came together and sealed their promises with a kiss, a softly voiced command had the military ushers taking up spots on either side of the aisle. Jase’s second-in-command issued the order, “Center face.” The groomsmen pivoted to face each other.
“Officers, draw swords,” Trevor said and their sabers sliced through the air to form the arch for the newlyweds.
Hand-in-hand with beaming smiles, the bride and groom paused to kiss before they ducked down and walked beneath the swords. As they reached the end, the last two men blocked their way and another of the officers swatted Nickie on the butt.
“Welcome to the Marines,” he said and the rest of the men shouted a healthy, “Oohrah!”
The guests gathered burst into applause and cheers as the soldiers moved aside and the newlyweds hurried away toward the boardwalk stairs. At another soft cue from the lieutenant’s second-in-command, the military men lowered their swords and resumed their bridal duties, joining up with the bridesmaids to form a receiving line by the foot of the stairs.
Nickie’s brother and the maid of honor went last and after them, the guests emptied from their rows to greet the newlyweds, their families, and the bridal party.
As the people in her row filed out, she held her place, torn between offering her congratulations and running. But she had come a long way to get here and it wasn’t just about the nearly three hour trip on the subway and train.
She’d been through bad and badder with Jase and his men. The least she could do was share in some of the good for a change.
Drawing in a deep breath, she took a step toward the newlyweds and toward the start of her new life.